HARARE – Polling stations in Zimbabwe closed on Monday after the country’s first election without former leader Robert Mugabe on the ballot, and election officers prepared to start counting.
Zimbabwe’s electoral commission has said it will announce final results within five days.
Earlier, the main opposition leader in this southern African nation said reports of voting delays were a “deliberate attempt” to undermine his supporters. The allegations by Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party, intensified concerns about management of the election and the prospect of a dispute over its outcome.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former deputy president, has promised a credible vote that he hopes will bring international legitimacy and investment. A seriously flawed process could signal more stagnation. Mugabe, 94, ruled Zimbabwe from independence in 1980 until his resignation in November, and many people are anxious for change.
Chamisa is concerned about delays at polling stations in urban areas, where support for the opposition has traditionally been strong while the ruling ZANU-PF party has dominated many rural areas in past elections marred by violence and irregularities.
“There seems to be a deliberate attempt to suppress and frustrate” urban voters through “unnecessary delays,” Chamisa said on Twitter. He acknowledged that there was a “good turnout”.
After the 19:00 closure of one polling station, the presiding officer asked party polling agents to inspect voting booths to ensure there were no ballot papers. Then the polling agents inspected the ballot boxes, noting serial numbers on the locks.
Twelve hours earlier, long lines had formed outside many polling stations in Harare, the capital, and elsewhere. Anyone in line as of the 7 p.m. closing time could still vote, though opposition parties were concerned that their supporters could drift away if forced to wait for hours, in the open and without food or drink.
Some observers welcome Zimbabwe’s freer political environment but cite worries about bias in state media, a lack of transparency in ballot printing and reports of intimidation by pro-government traditional leaders who are supposed to stay neutral.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, accused of engineering flawed election wins for Mugabe in the past, has said this vote will be free and fair.
Political and economic paralysis
“We need peace and we need everyone to be comfortable to go out and exercise their right to vote without fear,” said Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who chairs the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. She said she was confident that voting at most of the country’s nearly 11,000 polling stations would be completed by the closing time.
About 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election viewed by many as an opportunity to move beyond decades of political and economic paralysis.
A record of more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties were participating. If no presidential candidate wins 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held September 8.
“I want to do this and get on with my business. I am not leaving anything to chance. This is my future,” said Emerina Akenda, a first-time voter.
The two main contenders are 75-year-old Mnangagwa, who took over after Mugabe stepped down under military and ruling party pressure last year, and 40-year-old Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who became head of the main opposition party a few months ago after the death of its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
‘We have suffered a lot’
After voting, Mnangagwa said the election was peaceful and that he is committed to a Zimbabwe in which people have the “freedom to express their views, negative or positive”.
Piercing whistles and cheers greeted Chamisa as he voted outside Harare. He said he hoped voting in rural areas, where most of Zimbabwe’s voters are and where the ruling party usually holds sway, will be fair.
Despite Mugabe’s troubled legacy, dozens of cheering Zimbabweans gathered outside the polling station in the capital where he voted. Struggling to walk, Mugabe raised his fist to acknowledge them. He made his way into the polling center and had his finger inked, and was assisted by his wife into the booth.
Mugabe on Sunday said Chamisa was the only viable candidate and rejected Mnangagwa and the ruling party, saying: “I cannot vote for those who have tormented me.”
Chigumba, the electoral commission chief, said police have been informed about two presidential candidates who might have violated the law by campaigning after the cutoff time. She didn’t name them, but they are likely to be Chamisa and Mnangagwa, both of whom issued public statements on Sunday.
Even though it was a public holiday, some government offices were open so that those who had lost identity cards could get replacements and then cast their ballots.
Inside polling stations, voters were given three ballot papers: one for their presidential pick, another for member of parliament and a third for local councilor. Polling officers helped voters put each ballot paper in the right box.
“We need change because we have suffered a lot here,” said 65-year-old Mable Mafaro while voting in Harare. “We have suffered a lot. That’s all.”